November 15, 2017 / 9:35 AM / a year ago

China's blind activist calls for halt to forced labor in prisons

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - China’s blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng called on Wednesday for action to halt forced labor in Chinese prisons where inmates turn out products from Christmas lights to chopsticks, and urged U.S. President Donald Trump to speak up on the issue.

INTERVIEW - Are your Xmas lights made by slaves, asks Chinese dissident?

Chen, who lost his sight as a child after a fever but taught himself law, rose to prominence as a civil rights activist by campaigning for farmers, disabled citizens, and exposing forced abortions under China’s one-child policy.

He hit the headlines in 2012 for triggering a diplomatic row between China and the United States when he escaped house arrest and fled to the U.S. embassy in Beijing. The spat ended when it was agreed he could go as a student to a U.S. university.

But it was in 2006, when Chen was jailed for four years on what he said were trumped up charges, he discovered prisoners were being forced to work for up 16 hours a day to make various products and tortured if they did not work hard enough.

Since then Chen has added the battle against forced labor in China’s massive “prison factories” to his list of causes, saying he feared the human rights situation in China was “growing worse” and calling for action.

“If I as one blind person was able to face the world’s largest evil authoritarian regime, I am confident that all of you can do much more,” Chen told the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s annual Trust Conference in a keynote address.

“Unless China undergoes a transformation to end authoritarianism and unless it can establish a new system ... issues like human trafficking and forced labor, detention, disappearances and torture will not be resolved.”

An estimated 3.4 million people are living as slaves in China, according to the 2016 Global Slavery Index.

Chen, 46, nicknamed “The Barefoot Lawyer” which is also the title of his 2014 memoir, said the human rights situation in China has deteriorated since he moved to the United States.

The lawyer said he was working to raise Chinese human rights issues with Trump who has just ended a 12-day trip to Asia including a visit to China where trade was the main focus.

“I am working to communicate with him, we haven’t heard so much from Trump about human rights,” said Chen, now a senior fellow at The Witherspoon Institute, a U.S. think-tank.

“I am confident from some of the things that he has done that he is aware of human rights (situation in China) and expect that we will see more from his administration.”

China routinely denies the existence of forced labor and in 2013 abolished a notorious penal system where detainees held without trial carried out such work.

But Chen and human rights campaigners say forced labor remains widespread in China for convicted prisoners under another system known as “reform through labor”.

The extent of the use of forced labor in Chinese prisons is not known but the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional commission of the U.S. government, said in a report in August that China maintains the practice.

“In some facilities, the cries of people being beaten become a common background noise,” said Chen, who was not forced into manual labor as he was blind.

Reporting by Beh Lih Yi @behlihyi, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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